UN: Ethiopia crisis is the focus of diplomatic ‘speed dating’ week, US envoy Hammer says

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 21 September 2022 20:43, updated on Thursday, 22 September 2022 10:30

Mike Hammer with Felix Tshisekedi (photo presidential: twitter)
Mike Hammer with Felix Tshisekedi (photo presidential: twitter)

While the war in Ukraine is taking center stage at the annual United Nations (UN) General Assembly meetings this week, the crisis in northern Ethiopia remains a key focal point behind the scenes.

Diplomats from the world over are taking full advantage of the world’s largest platform for multilateral engagement to try to restart peace talks between Addis Ababa and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The United States is taking a key role after a five-month truce broke down late last month.

“It’s speed dating week,” US special envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer tells The Africa Report in an interview in New York after returning from his third trip to the region. “And so I’m going to be in touch with as many of my counterparts and countries [as possible] that are working and relevant to this issue.”

Hammer was in the room when secretary of state Antony Blinken met with Egypt’s prime minister Sameh Shoukry on 19 September. Meetings with African Union (AU) Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat and under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths are also possible.

And President Joe Biden himself listed the conflict as a priority in his 21 September address to the UN General Assembly.

“We support an African Union-led peace process to end the fight in Ethiopia and restore security for all its people,” he said.

Hammer and other members of the US delegation were also supposed to meet with Kenya’s President William Ruto – who assistant secretary of state for African affairs Molly Phee met at his inauguration in Nairobi – on the margins of the General Assembly on 20 September, but Ruto canceled because of a scheduling conflict.

“You can rest assured that this is a matter of extreme concern in terms of the future of Ethiopia and stability in the region,” Hammer says. “We are fully engaged at multiple levels to see how we can make progress, but it’s difficult. It’s challenging. I found that in my two months on the job, but we will continue at it.”

Food security

The conflict is also top of mind in discussions around food security in the Horn of Africa. In his UN address, Biden announced more than $2.9bn in new assistance from the US to address the immediate and long-term effects of the global food security crisis, notably in eastern Africa.

“Right now, the Horn of Africa is facing the most severe food security crisis in the world due to the unprecedented drought,” the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said in a fact sheet accompanying Biden’s announcement.

The AU takes the lead

Hammer makes it clear that the US wants to be a supporting partner to an Africa-led peace efforts in Ethiopia. The AU’s high representative for the Horn of Africa, former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, is leading peace talks between the two parties.

“This is not about intervention. It’s about realisation that the parties could benefit from the support of the international community,” Hammer says. “And that’s what we’re striving to do.”

There was some discussion of doing a UN Security Council briefing on Ethiopia. I think the circumstances have led it to be postponed for now.

While some African leaders had sought a meeting on the Ethiopia situation during the General Assembly, that does not seem likely to happen. The UN has come under criticism for not taking up the conflict as a formal item in the Security Council, but Hammer praised the work of the UN special envoy for the Horn of Africa Hanna Tetteh and said he was “very pleased with the partnership with the UN as well as with other international actors.”

“There was some discussion of doing a UN Security Council briefing on Ethiopia. I think the circumstances have led it to be postponed for now,” Hammer says. “Look, it is very clear, I think, to the Ethiopian government, and obviously, the TPLF, that there’s an international interest and concern over the situation.”

As for who would take the lead in guaranteeing an eventual peace deal, Hammer said the US would welcome the role, if asked.

“Really the US is there in support. If we are asked, then we will look to accommodate that request,” he explains. “If it’s a matter for others that are better positioned, or they have more of the confidence of the parties, then that that works for us, too.”

Too many cooks

While the US has welcomed input from regional players such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Washington is more wary of China and Russia.

“We always look for opportunities where there are to cooperate,” Hammer says when asked about possibly reaching out to China during the General Assembly. “I know that they’ve appointed a new special envoy for the Horn. [I am] not quite sure what their perspectives are.”

“Right now, there’s an abundance of countries with interests in Ethiopia with whom we are working. And the bottom line is that any party that encourages peace is one that can help maybe contribute to the process. But as some say, you can also have too many cooks in the kitchen.”

As for a role for Russia, Hammer made clear Moscow is not considered a viable partner on the Ethiopian dossier in the current climate.

“The effort that’s been made on the Russians, it relates directly to ending their invasion of Ukraine, which is impeding the shipment of much-needed grain and providing or aggravating further food insecurity,” he says.

Confronting Eritrea

Eritrea is also seen as a spoiler in the conflict.

“We’ve been tracking Eritrea and troop movements ac

ross the border. They are extremely concerning, and we condemn them,” Hammer says. “All external foreign actors should respect Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and avoid fuelling the conflict.”

He declined to say what measures the US might take if Asmara does not back down.

Asked how the US is engaging with Eritrea given the low level of diplomatic relations, he declined to get into specifics.

“It’s quite evident that there’s a challenge there. But I think the Eritreans are very well aware of US positions. We do have representation in Asmara and will convey our perspectives so that they can fully appreciate that their actions in Ethiopia are destabilising and ultimately are only worsening the crisis.”

“I can’t really go for further than that,” Hammer concludes, “other than to say that, you know, we, the US, support Ethiopia’s unity territorial integrity and sovereignty. And clearly Eritrea’s actions go against it.”

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